Perth Wildcats Season Preview

The Wildcats are undoubtedly the gold standard of Australian basketball. The Perth juggernaut have made 30 consecutive postseason appearances, a stunning statistic when you consider the often turbulent landscape of the domestic league over the past decade. Shall we just say that nothing is certain in life except birth, taxes and…the Wildcats making the playoffs?

“This streak we have of consecutive finals appearances…you really don’t want to be part of a team that doesn’t make a finals,” admitted Wildcats captain, Damian Martin, when speaking with The Pick and Roll. “It is in the back of your mind.”

And with the arrival of new talent joining a core that remains in intact, expect the defending champs to keep that streak alive.

The real question is: can they repeat?


Offseason

Key losses:

Nate Jawai (Cairns), Jermaine Beal (Brisbane), Tom Jervis (Brisbane)

Key additions:

Angus Brandt (Sydney), Jaron Johnson (Rio Grande Valley Vipers), Jameel McKay (Iowa State)

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Whilst the Wildcats bid farewell to a trio of key contributors in Jermaine Beal, Nate Jawai and Tom Jervis to Queensland over the offseason, the core returns once again.

The holdovers such as Martin, Matty Knight, Jesse Wagstaff, Greg Hire and the ageless Shawn Redhage remain to shepherd the program along.

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And continuity matters.

Like a well-oiled machine, the Cats are methodically consistent. They know exactly who they are – a defensive juggernaut that grinds teams into the dust over 40 brutal minutes. They ranked in the top two in defensive efficiency yet again last season, per RealGM.

We know what we’re going to get from the usual suspects.

“The core group of guys, we’re back again together,” said Martin. “We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. There’s a level of comfort that comes with that.”

The real focus for the Wildcats over the offseason has been to mesh their new arrivals into a tried-and-tested system.

“Chemistry has been a huge factor of our success for the last 3 years,” explained head coach, Trevor Gleeson. “That still maintains. We’ve got a core group of guys that love playing with each other, willing to sacrifice self for the betterment of the team.”

That chemistry has required an unusually higher focus due to the departures of 3 key Wildcats; both Beal and Jervis bolted to the Bullets, while ginormous human, Jawai, returned to the Cairns Taipans.

In their place, the Wildcats welcome in the quartet of Jaron Johnson, Jameel McKay, Angust Brandt and Dexter Kernich-Drew.

Perth_Depth_Chart

The turnover of players is somewhat of an anomaly for the Cats.

“We’ve got 4 new players coming into the roster this year which is quite substantial,” said Gleeson. “We’ve just got to make sure the culture is passed down to the guys coming in, and [that] they understand what it means to be a Wildcat.”

“We’ve had a pretty big influx of players,” added swingman, Greg Hire. “We’ve been training for a few weeks now to try and implement our systems.”

Such has been the focus that the Wildcats have slotted in more practise games into their preseason schedule than usual.

It’s hoped that the added game time gives the coaching staff a chance to see how the newbies mesh in game situations, with the added benefit of allowing the players to feel comfortable with one another.

“What’s impressed me with the new guys in particular, the imports, is their athleticism and how hard they play,” said Damian Martin. “It’s going to be a fun style of basketball.”


What to expect?

Damian Martin best sums up the culture of the club with a single line.

“There’s a strong sense of unity and determination,” he said.

No player on their roster encapsulates that ethos more than the five-time Defensive Player of the Year, and reigning Grand Final series MVP.

Martin is the head of the snake of a defensive juggernaut that applies pressure for the full 94 feet of the court. He embodies what the Wildcats are all about with his toughness and the heat he brings on the ball.

Heading into his 10th season in the league, Martin will once again set the defensive tone for the rest playing group.

“That’s a strength of ours,” agreed Gleeson. “We certainly want to play to that strength, hopefully at another level this year.”

Matty Knight also returns to man the paint and internally, he’s seen as the captain of a physical backline defense that will feature a plethora of mobile, sweet shooting big men.

Individually, the rugged Knight slides his feet well and is an excellent positional defender. You can say the same for Jesse Wagstaff, Shawn Redhage, and also Greg Hire when he’s asked to shift up a position.

But the Wildcats appear to have added a different element to their interior defense in Jameel McKay. McKay provides the Cats with an athletic interior presence; he’s an above-the-rim shot blocking menace with long arms and excellent timing.

Do you like what you've seen from our new signing, Jameel McKay? pic.twitter.com/SrB4OjJSC9

— Perth Wildcats (@PerthWildcats) August 2, 2016

On the wings, Jaron Johnson, who plied his trade in the NBA D League over the past two seasons, joins returning import, Casey Prather, to form a high-flying tandem.

Like Prather, Johnson is rangy and athletic, and will form an imposing perimeter defense for the Wildcats.

Flanking Martin with dudes who can play both sides of the ball appears to have been a real priority for the club.

“Anytime that you have Damo heading that – can put heat on the ball – you’ve got to put [quality defenders] around him, said Gleeson. “We made a concerted effort last year to make sure the import was complementing Damo. That’s when we got Casey [Prathers], who is a very good defender.”

Added Hire, “it will be exciting to see them at the front of a press, seeing how their length can really disrupt an opposition, but more so how we can see them in the open court and seeing them have some fun.”

The Cats’ most used lineup last season was Martin/Beal/Prather/Knight/Jawai.

That unit forced opponents into barfing up the ball at 16.1 percent – a mark that ranked 17th best in forcing turnovers across the league (for all lineups that logged at least 50 possessions together).

But when the Wildcats decided to amp up the defensive pressure, they simply replaced Jawai with the more mobile Jesse Wagstaff. A lineup of Martin/Beal/Prather/Wagstaff/Knight generated opposition turnovers at a league-high rate of 20 percent. (thanks to Andrew Price of SpatialJam!)

With the addition of elite athletes in Johnson and McKay, expect that figure to spike and translate into easy transition points on the other end.

“As a point guard, what a luxury I have to look on one wing I’ve got Jaron, and on the other wing I’ve got Casey running the lanes,” said Martin, salivating at the prospect of running in transition.

“And with Jameel, any shot that we miss he’s going to be on the boards, or any lob we want to throw he’ll be right up there above the ring and dunking it.”

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On offense last season, the Cats were generally plodders, bludgeoning fools to proverbial death on the inside. According to Crunchtime Shots, they took by far and away the most field goal attempts inside the paint. They were also middling in pace, per RealGM, but those numbers are misleading.

The Cats absolutely obliterated the league on the offensive glass – they led in both average offensive rebounds per game, and also offensive rebound rate. All those offensive caroms artificially slow down the pace of play (hats off to our resident stats guru, Jordan) and turn contests into a half-court slugfest.

“We’ve always tried to utilise possessions as much as we can,” said Hire. “We have a massive strength in trying to get more possessions, and how we generate that is either by offensive rebounds or [generating] turnovers.”

And that suited the Wildcats just fine when they had post behemoths to throw the ball into for shot creation in Jawai, and then Jervis coming in off the bench.

Now with an infusion of athleticism, and after replacing those big guys with dive men in McKay and Angus Brandt, the Wildcats will look to shift their profile this season.

“We’re going to be up court, like normal, defensively. Where we’re really going to make some changes is really try and get out and run at the other end,” said Martin.

It appears that there be a concerted effort to dial up the pace this season and utilise the athletic edge of their roster.

“No doubt about it, we want to speed it up,” said Hire in agreement.

“The very first part of preseason, we have had a huge emphasis on conditioning. This is the best shape I’ve seen a lot of these guys in.”


Outlook

The defending champs will need to integrate more new pieces than usual into their program, but they still have a significant advantage over most teams in continuity.

The only obstacles that may seemingly prevent the Wildcats from another finals berth, and subsequent title contention, appear to be come from within.

“You’ve got to stay healthy, the chemistry, and get the right pieces in the right place, and make sure we’re getting the max out of Angus [Brandt],” said Gleeson.

Brandt has potential and could form the best rim-running centre pairing in the league with Jameel McKay.

He was an expert moocher at the Kings last season, with the highest percentage of assisted field goals in the league, per Spatialjam (minimum 50 field goals made throughout the season). But he was an elite finisher in the paint and also flashed a soft shooting stroke that extended to the 3-point line.

I wrote before that Brandt was an interesting prospect – a mobile big who embodies the traits of both the old and new school centre.

“There’s a great ceiling for him that’s only been scratched,” said Gleeson.

“I think Angus has got great upside. I know he’s been a little bit up-and-down. We’ve seen glimpses of what he could do with the Kings. Hopefully, he’ll take that added responsibility and be the centrepiece that we need him to be.”

Jarrod Kenny will continue to play understudy to Damian Martin, whilst the addition of Dexter Kernich-Drew gives Perth an outside shooter to stretch the floor after the loss of Beal.

What we might see more of is the evolution of Casey Prather into an elite two-way player by being a more consistent defensive force.

“I believe he can be the best defender in the league and that’s something I’m going to challenge him with this year,” said Martin.

“I’ve seen what he’s capable of when he’s on the ball guarding it, and I think the pressure he can put on the opposition is something we really need to take advantage of this season. That will be contagious. That will trickle down to everyone else.”

As always, everything starts with defense for the Wildcats. Don’t be surprised if this is turns out to be the best defensive group of the modern Perth era.

“If we want to be successful with how good the league is this year, with the calibre of Aussies returning, or how good the imports are, then all 5 of us on the court better be switched on and ready to play defense,” Martin concluded.

That’s just it. The league will be loaded. But the road to a title always runs through the champs and the Wildcats will be ready.